Why fig­ure­heads are naked women and cats good news

Dave Cochrane, founder of Fin­daFish­ingBoat.com, ex­plains sa­cred sea­far­ing su­per­sti­tions

The Oban Times - - News -

EV­ERY pro­fes­sion has its su­per­sti­tions, tra­di­tional cus­toms and strange be­liefs but mariners – specif­i­cally fish­er­men – have more than their fair share.

Most are as­so­ci­ated with bad luck and are por­ten­tous of omi­nous weather, tragedy or poor fish­ing. From the no­tion of women on board be­ing a dis­trac­tion, to whistling on the bridge in­cit­ing a storm, there are dozens of ways in which mis­for­tune can be wrought upon a ves­sel or voy­age ... if you be­lieve in that kind of thing.

Strange as it may seem, a lot of these cus­toms are still ob­served even in the modern-day marine age. Of course, most sailors and sea­men to­day know that these be­liefs are all bo­gus but they can still per­vade the daily lives of those who take to the sea.

Whether these myths are a ro­man­ti­cised hang­over from an­other era or based in some foun­da­tion of fact, we look at the his­tory of some tra­di­tional folk­lore that still ex­ists to­day.

Un­lucky Fri­day

Fri­day is con­sid­ered an un­lucky in many walks of life and re­mains preva­lent even in to­day’s modern sea­far­ing world. Though most com­mer­cial ves­sels wouldn’t de­lay a voy­age that was due to start on a Fri­day, there are still plenty of fish­er­men who pre­fer to stay on dry land at the end of a week.

The be­lief is thought to be linked to the fact that Christ was cru­ci­fied on a Fri­day and voy­ages destined to leave for sea would have an un­lucky trip. In the same vein, Sun­days are a good day to set sail as Je­sus was res­ur­rected on the Sab­bath.

For­bid­den words

Just like the theatre, cer­tain words have been known to be banned on board any ves­sel. From the early days of shipping, wish­ing any­one ‘good luck’ or merely say­ing ‘good­bye’ were thought to bring mis­for­tune on the crew.

Speak­ing of good­byes, it was con­sid­ered bad luck to watch a ves­sel un­til it was out of sight as all on board would be drowned – which is an­other one for the banned list. The word ‘drowned’ was also thought to have been for­bid­den for fear of tempt­ing fate.

If the words ‘good luck’ were ut­tered on board a boat, then the only way to re­v­erse the ‘curse’ was to punch some­one (usu­ally the per­son who’d said it) and draw blood.

Cats and the sea

The hum­ble cat has links to many su­per­sti­tions and prob­a­bly dates to Ancient Egyp­tian times when cats were revered crea­tures. As the species were do­mes­ti­cated across Europe they be­came the unof­fi­cial guardians of the home. This as­so­ci­a­tion with se­cu­rity and safety is the ori­gin of most su­per­sti­tions re­lat­ing to cats.

In the nau­ti­cal world, cats fea­ture a lot and par­tic­u­larly with fish­er­men. Any fish­er­men head­ing off to sea would be only too pleased to at­tract the at­ten­tion of a cat; one that purrs be­fore a launch is said to bring a boun­ti­ful haul as will one that rubs it­self against the an­kles of the crew. The rea­son­ing be­ing a sound one: cats can smell the fish a mile away.

The in­fa­mous black cat was thought to be a good omen if it ven­tured on board a ves­sel of its own free will. How­ever, the cat that licks its fur the wrong way has been blamed for caus­ing storms.

The as­so­ci­a­tion be­tween the sea and cats can also be found in the way sailors re­fer to the water with ‘cat’s paws’ be­ing a term for the small rip­ples on the ocean’s sur­face and ‘cat’s skin’ re­fer­ring to a big dis­tur­bance in the sea.

Nam­ing ves­sels

Nam­ing a ship even to­day is a big deal and of­ten has some­thing of the cer­e­mo­nial about it, even if it isn’t the QE2.

The tra­di­tion of bless­ing a ship to be­stow good luck upon all who sail in it goes back thou­sands of years. Ev­i­dence has shown that the Baby­lo­ni­ans in around 3000 BC were per­form­ing nam­ing rites on their ves­sels and even sac­ri­fic­ing cat­tle as part of the cer­e­mony.

The Vik­ings con­tin­ued in this vein with the spilling of blood as an of­fer­ing to the Norse gods. Though the blood has been re­placed by wine (or a bot­tle of Cham­pagne) we still per­form cel­e­bra­tory rites when chris­ten­ing a ves­sel to­day.

A part of the cul­tural tra­di­tion de­mands that a woman per­forms the bap­tism as a way of en­sur­ing pros­per­ity and good luck for the ves­sel.

Women and bad luck

Given the fact that a woman’s touch was deemed to be good luck dur­ing a nam­ing cer­e­mony for a boat, why, then, was hav­ing a woman on board con­sid­ered to be bad luck?

Sadly, there’s no fan­tas­ti­cal yarn about this one – it’s sim­ply a case of dis­trac­tion. Un­til re­cent times, the marine in­dus­try was a male-domi- nated one and a crew of men at sea would no doubt have been driven to dis­trac­tion by the pres­ence of a fe­male among their ranks.

That’s not to say that it never hap­pened: the in­fa­mous Mary-Ann Tal­bot served along­side her guardian, Cap­tain Bowen, as a drum­mer, con­cealed in men’s cloth­ing in the late 18th cen­tury. Af­ter Bowen was killed in bat­tle, Tal­bot worked on board sev­eral ves­sels with­out in­ci­dent.

There are, of course, many tales of successful fe­male pi­rates through­out his­tory, in­clud­ing Anne Bonny, Grace O’Mal­ley and Lady El­iz­a­beth Kil­li­grew.

In­ter­est­ingly, the en­dur­ingly charm­ing curse, ‘ son of a gun’ is de­rived from the ac­tiv­i­ties of sailors who failed to stay fo­cused on their ac­tiv­i­ties. The prac­tice of con­sum­mat­ing an af­fair on board was of­ten done so on the gun deck, some­times re­sult­ing in a child born out of wed­lock – the son of a gun. And it wasn’t just fe­males of our own species that were pur­ported to have a dis­tract­ing ef­fect on his­tory’s mariners. Mer­maids were also renowned for lur­ing vul­ner­a­ble sailors to their doom.

Con­trar­ily, sea­far­ing folk be­lieved that nude women were ac­tu­ally a calm­ing in­flu­ence on the sea which is why so many fig­ure­heads on old sail­ing ships are of naked women.

In­creas­ing catch

Cus­toms and tra­di­tions per­vaded all ar­eas of sea life and things such as drop­ping a cake of ice over­board would en­sure a big catch. Spitting into the mouth of the first fish you catch was also be­lieved to im­prove the haul of the day. But, speak­ing of spitting, it was gen­er­ally held to be true that let­ting the skip­per spit into the water ahead of him would drive the fish away.

Ba­nanas on board

Weird as it may sound, ba­nanas were thought to be ter­ri­ble bad luck for a ves­sel.

The su­per­sti­tion re­sulted from ob­ser­va­tions that ves­sels car­ry­ing ba­nanas as cargo be­fell some strange and un­usual fates. Some ships sim­ply dis­ap­peared while oth­ers suf­fered out­breaks of mys­te­ri­ous ill­nesses among the crew re­sult­ing in sick­ness and some­times death.

There is ev­i­dence to sug­gest that the rapidly de­cay­ing fruit which gives off eth­yl­ene ox­ide could have ac­counted for this. An­other the­ory is that the bunches of ex­otic fruit bound from South Amer­ica and the West Indies to Europe could have con­tained poi­sonous spi­ders.

What­ever the cause and whether it was as­so­ci­ated with just those ships car­ry­ing ba­nanas is ir­rel­e­vant – the fruit quickly be­came a bad omen to have on board.

In­flu­enc­ing the weather

The pop­u­lar phrase, ‘whistling up a storm’, de­rived from the com­monly held be­lief that whistling while on the bridge would re­sult in the on­set of strong winds. Clap­ping, too, could also be blamed for in­cit­ing light­ing and thun­der, and throw­ing a penny over­board would bring a favourable wind.

Dave Cochrane has more than 35 years’ ex­pe­ri­ence in the fish­ing in­dus­try hav­ing worked as a skip­per and com­mer­cial fish­er­man since 1980, own­ing a boat and run­ning his own crew fish­ing for prawns and scal­lops. He then re­trained as a paramedic and en­joyed 12 years work­ing with the am­bu­lance ser­vice ev­ery sec­ond week in Stron­tian, western Lochaber, where he and his wife, Eileen, live. Still a keen fish­er­man, Dave con­tin­ued to head out to sea in the weeks he was off work and the de­ci­sion to buy him­self a new boat re­sulted in the birth of Fin­daFish­ingBoat.com 19 years ago.

The only way to re­v­erse a curse was to punch some­one.

A fish­ing boat works the wa­ters off the is­land of Eigg but her crew might be ul­tra su­per­sti­tious.

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